Since summer is slow in publishing-a few blockbusters courtesy of Hillary and Harry Potter notwithstanding-it should come as no surprise that Sunday’s New York Times Magazine piece about Random House made a sound in the forest even before it officially fell. But even by publishing’s high-decibel-chatter standards, the noise has been loud. Faxed versions of the article-including poorly faxed copies that cut off whole columns-began flying between offices last week. You couldn’t get an editor or an agent on the phone without someone bringing up Lynn Hirschberg’s “shocking” (most said) or “delicious” (depending on your relationship with Random House) piece about Peter Olson, the Random chief executive who was last in the news when he fired Little Random editor and publisher Ann Godoff last winter.
And it wasn’t just publishing insiders that were talking. A young schoolteacher who lives in my building saw me carrying the magazine to my office on Monday morning and without preamble opined, “That was a hell of a piece about that creep at Random House.”
In case you’ve already started your vacation in a place where there is neither Internet nor phone nor fax nor Times delivery, here are the basics: Lynn Hirschberg, a veteran journalist known for razor-sharp profiles of everyone from former ABC entertainment head Jamie Tarses (who may have lost her job partly because she was portrayed as childish and willful in Ms. Hirschberg’s Times Magazine piece of July 13, 1997) to Bette Midler (whose eponymous sit-com bombed soon thereafter), spent weeks with Peter Olson around the time of Book Expo America in L.A. in May. She quoted him liberally there and back in New York, and also interviewed many publishing insiders, including Knopf honcho Sonny Mehta and at least one unnamed former executive of Bertelsmann, R.H.’s parent company. She even got her hands on the embarrassing book proposal that Mr. Olson’s new wife, the former Candice Carpenter, put into circulation a few months back.
The result: a profile of a man who smirks at a reference to his brutal firing of Ms. Godoff; an executive who chats up fellow publishers and then, sotto voce , makes fun of the way they run their businesses and sometimes even the way they talk; a guy who brags about all the people whose careers he has off-loaded, like some trashy old lech who points to a woman he’s bedded and says, “I’ve had her.”
The idea behind assigning the piece-what Times Magazine editors must surely have conceived it to be-was to look into the “new” lean and mean Random House, and the future of publishing in general. But most insiders see the result in starker terms: It’s either a hatchet job (say those few who like Mr. Olson) or a vindication (for those many publishing types who don’t).
This being publishing, of course, no one will go on the record, but here are the questions that come up in every conversation:
Question No. 1: How could Random House have allowed this piece to happen in the first place?
As anybody who has ever been on the publishing beat can tell you, the gates to Random House are guarded by the fiercest Cerberus in town, corporate spokesman Stuart Applebaum. Exactly no one in the company will submit to a profile without his consent, and even The New York Times would have had to win Mr. Applebaum’s blessing to get access to Mr. Olson. So how did Ms. Hirschberg-known to everyone as a tough reporter with no particular ties to the publishing business-get past him? Simple, said one publishing insider: “They thought it was going to be a slam-dunk.” Reading the piece closely and figuring the timing, you can almost see why: Many of Ms. Hirschberg’s scenes take place at B.E.A., where it was expected to be announced that Random House was buying the AOL Time Warner book division. (The purchase ultimately fell through, as Ms. Hirschberg reports.) “If Olson had closed the deal, he would have come off as king of the world,” one publisher pointed out. And that was an image that would have been irresistible.
When I talked to Mr. Applebaum about this, he denied that the then seemingly imminent R.H.-AOL merger had anything to do with his decision to introduce Mr. Olson to Ms. Hirschberg. He also said, several times, that Random House has already put the piece behind it. He did admit, however, to “disappoint[ment]” with the story, and pointed out that for a piece that was supposed to be about the company’s profitability, there wasn’t “a syllable of quantification of that.”
But since I’d asked, Mr. Applebaum figured he’d mention a few other things, including, that “the piece was inaccurate,” he said. This, of course, is standard publicist-speak when confronted by pesky journalists: always point to the small inaccuracies, like Ms. Hirschberg writing that Richard North Patterson (a Ballantine author) was signing books in the AOL booth when, in fact, it was James Patterson, who publishes with AOL. There were more mistakes like that, Mr. Applebaum said, “but I stopped counting because there were so many.” But then again, you can hardly blame him; at his level, any publicist’s job is at least 50 percent damage control.
Unless he was having an unlikely, unconscious Iago moment and selling out his boss on purpose, Mr. Applebaum now has no choice but to discredit the parts of the Times Magazine piece that he can, in the hopes that he’ll do damage to the whole.
Question No. 2: Will Olson get fired over this?
There are plenty who believe it would be pretty to think so. But those people are not, I’m afraid, in touch with the realities of this or maybe any other business. “The Germans”-which is what just about everybody calls the Bertelsmann brass-will love Ms. Hirschberg’s story. Mr. Olson’s mandate, clearly and often stated, is to make Random House profitable, and it’s unlikely that anybody in Gütersloh cares a lot about how he does it. (“I think Peter thought that if he fired Ann Godoff, his image in Gütersloh would be ‘I’m tough. I’m cool. I’m cost-conscious,'” said a former Bertelsmann executive quoted in the piece.) In fact, for all that the story indicated that Mr. Olson is a cruel manager, the people the piece has most upset are those ultimately dependent on him for their jobs. Who cares if an editor at Little Random-or even the powerful, tasteful Sonny Mehta-is disgusted? As long as the higher-ups are happy-and Ms. Hirschberg suggests that they are-Mr. Olson won’t be going away any time soon. And Mr. Olson himself seems to know it. In fact, he almost appears to be sending a message of solidarity to his bosses-and a screw-you to his underlings-with the final scene, in which he shows Ms. Hirschberg his Steiff animal collection: “I have a bunny … but I don’t like it,” he tells her. “I can’t help it-I always gravitate to the predators. It’s just my nature.”
Question No. 3: What will happen to those R.H. staffers who spoke up?
Well, there’s really only one-Mr. Mehta-who allowed himself to be quoted sounding critical of Mr. Olson. (” … Taste is not what Peter is about,” he says, dryly.) But not only is Mr. Mehta, by his own admission, “pretty near unscarable,” it’s unlikely that Mr. Olson will punish him, since even the C.E.O. has to be embarrassed by the assertion that two years ago, Mr. Olson tried to fire him and replace him with none other than Ann Godoff. (Mr. Olson denies that allegation.) Besides, a more relevant question might be: How long will Mr. Mehta choose to stay with the company he obviously thinks of as philistine? The others-Gina Centrello, Bantam Dell head Irwyn Applebaum, new R.H. editor in chief Daniel Menaker-are far more circumspect, if not complimentary of Mr. Olson. Still, Ms. Centrello comes off-as she always does-as defensive. Depicted here in a photograph that indicates she’s a tiny female powerhouse amid tall faceless guys, the new publisher of the Random House Ballantine Group is portrayed-familiarly, for anyone who’s followed the saga since Ms. Godoff’s firing-as a glorified bean-counter with strong ties to Irwyn Applebaum, and thus to Mr. Olson. “I was given this job because of my record,” Ms. Centrello tells Ms. Hirschberg. She’s not the literary type, she says; she doesn’t go to cocktail parties or schmooze agents; she doesn’t see that as her job. But so what? While most agents and editors I’ve talked to remark on the fact that Ms. Centrello rarely engages them in conversations about books or writers-you can’t get “traction” with her by talking about such subjects, because she focuses almost entirely on the bottom line-many also feel that she has been unfairly maligned by the press. After all, she knew enough to hire Dan Menaker for the Random editor-in-chief job and to let him acquire “about 15 books, all of which [are] consistent with the Random House literary profile.” And who wouldn’t be a little defensive, given the drubbing she has gotten so far?
Besides, the piece has counterintuitively served, for some, as a rallying cry for those in the Centrello camp. “I was just so upset about the way Random House is portrayed,” said one executive there. “We’ve been through six months of tumult, and things are much better now. And a lot of that is thanks to Gina.”
As for Mr. Menaker … well, he’s a guy in a tough spot. A beloved editor with a literary reputation, he’s clearly and supremely obligated to Ms. Centrello and Mr. Applebaum-and ultimately to Mr. Olson himself-for giving him the job that he very enthusiastically told friends, months ago, he was thrilled to get. So what else is he to do but toe the company line? “Publishing is a business, a sport and an art,” he tells Ms. Hirschberg, obviously trying to bridge his interests with his bosses’. “You’re going hunting, but there’s an art to it.”
Clearly, his new bosses seem more fixated on the former than the latter. So for Mr. Menaker and the rest of the “new” Random House, it’s all now a question of aim. Will they land enough big literary game to maintain the house’s high-blown reputation? Will they bring in enough bacon to satisfy Ms. Centrello and Mr. Olson?
One can only hope.
The last thing publishing needs, everybody agrees, is another shot in the foot.